California Lobbies U.S. for Journalist Shield Law

California lawmakers are calling on Congress to enact a federal shield law to protect journalists. The state already has a shield law. But lawmakers say a federal statute is needed to protect reporters.

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Here in California, state lawmakers are known for their disagreements. But recently they all agreed on one thing: that Congress should adopt a national shield law to protect journalists.

NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES reporting:

California is one of many states with a law on the books that allows journalists to keep their sources confidential. But two recent cases in San Francisco show that there are ways around that.

They involve journalists who are being pursued by federal authorities who say California law doesn't apply to them. It's one reason Assemblywoman Noreen Evans sponsored a resolution urging the U.S. Congress to pass a national shield law for reporters.

Assemblywoman NOREEN EVANS (Democrat, California): We've seen, in the last couple of years, journalists going to prison. We've seen them being threatened with prison. All because somebody wants some information that they have.

GONZALES: For example, Evans points to the case of freelance journalist Josh Wolf, who is now in a federal prison outside of San Francisco. Wolf, who runs a blog, refused to turn over his video outtakes of a demonstration last summer that turned violent. Dan Siegel is Wolf's attorney.

Mr. DAN SIEGEL (Attorney): Federal and state authorities have done an end run around the California Shield Law by purporting to investigate a federal offense.

GONZALES: That offense, say federal prosecutors, was committed when protestors damaged a San Francisco police cruiser that had been purchased, in part, with federal money. Authorities want Wolf's unedited footage to help them find the culprit. Attorney Dan Siegel says the police car only suffered a broken taillight, and he claims federal authorities are trying to use a legal loophole to violate the spirit of California's Shield Law and force Wolf to become an informant.

Mr. SIEGEL: If this were simply a state law investigation of who damaged the police car, the state prosecutor would not - because of California's Shield Law be able to subpoena Josh Wolf and ask him to either testify about what he saw or to turn over his videotape.

GONZALES: However, William Alsup - the federal judge who cited Wolf for contempt - insisted that everyone from the president of the United States on down has to cooperate with a federal grand jury investigation. And many legal analysts agree that journalists can't expect to operate beyond the reach of the law. Brain Walsh is with the D.C.-based Heritage Foundation.

Mr. BRIAN WALSH (Heritage Foundation): Whether it's a disclosure of information that is supposed to be kept confidential in a grand jury, or - such as the videotape in the San Francisco example - its purpose is not to shield criminal conduct. And that's really not what privileges are shaped to do.

GONZALES: In another high profile California case, two reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle ran afoul of federal prosecutors when they published leaked testimony from a secret grand jury investigating steroid use by professional athletes. Now, Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada are facing contempt charges and could go to jail. Phil Bronstein is the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Mr. PHIL BRONSTEIN (Editor, San Francisco Chronicle): Our reporters Mark and Lance have provided the information that created a huge public debate about the use of steroids - not just in professional sports but college sports, amateur sports, high school sports - that I think was very beneficial, whatever one's opinion is. And I think if you weigh that against the government's stated needs to have this information in a case that's essentially over, where's the balance in that?

GONZALES: California lawmakers say these cases show the need for a national shield law. But even with a half dozen bills circulating in Congress, no one expects that to happen any time soon.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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